Ottawa (Special to Informed Comment) – The term “social movements” typically evoke the idea of political activities in a sphere separate from culture, but social movements are closely related to values, ways of living, ethics, and more broadly culture. Among new social movement scholars, there is a growing recognition that social movements have more cultural impact than is reflected in the field. Moreover, since the symbolic dimension of culture is part of policies and practices in all spheres, social movements are increasingly acknowledged to exert cultural influence not only in political and economic realms but also in non-political domains such as the spheres of art, music, education, fashion, and more. This paper seeks to discuss the Women, Life, Freedom movement in a broader context of culture and everyday practices, to explore what sense we can make of it one year after its emergence, and to see what it tells us about the prospect of Women’s freedom movements in Iran. The discussion begins with an overview of the contextual background.
Since the 1987 Revolution, women’s bodies and female sexuality have served as focal points for promoting Islamic nationalism in Iran. The veil, in particular, became a powerful marker of resistance against the penetration of Western values. Although the politicization of female bodies and sexuality did not begin with the Islamic Revolution, here the focus is on the period surrounding the revolution and its aftermath. On the discursive level, two strategies or social technologies have been employed in attempts to govern female sexuality. The first, identity formation, involves crafting the “Ideal Woman” to be imitated, as exemplified by Ali Shariati’s depiction of “Fatemeh” (Mohammad’s daughter), as simple, pure, and devoid of sexual instincts. This form of identity formation remains an ongoing project, evident in the publication of books on “The Balanced Woman” and the organization of conferences on the subject where the balanced woman is envisioned as a defender of the Islamic revolution and its martyrs. The second strategy, knowledge production and discourses on female sexuality and women’s role in an Islamic society have varied around temporal and political contexts. For instance, Farhi (1994) explores how Khomeini’s writings attributed different functions to women’s sexuality and behavior depending on the political contexts, e.g., a shift from a set of instructions for legitimate reproduction to insistence on the role of veiled women in resisting western forces during the years of the Islamic revolution.
With respect to the material dimension, a number of apparatuses emerged almost immediately after the revolution to make sure that women abided by alleged Islamic dress codes through the imposition of uniforms in schools and by mandating the wearing of the Chador as a pre-condition for accessing particular services, such as some healthcare facilities. These measures transformed the wearing of the hijab into a coercive institutional mandate.
The portrayal of women as the guardians of the revolutionary cause and the imposition of the mandatory hijab were never universally accepted or endorsed by women. Groups of women resisted these from the outset. Among middle-class women, resistance took the form of not following the hijab regulations strictly by, for example, participating in large-scale street demonstrations in 1981 after the hijab became officially mandatory or allowing some hair to remain visible. Additionally, Iranian women have participated in a number of campaigns over the years, including The One Million Signatures Campaign and the Stealthy Freedom campaign, and of course, most recently last year’s Women, Life, Freedom movement.
More than a year has passed since Mahsa Amini’s death. The repercussions of that tragic incident were undeniably significant. While the Women, Life, Freedom movement emerged in Iran, it rapidly gained international attention and received substantial support, primarily from the Iranian diaspora. The expansive scale of the protests, the international attention, and the expressions of solidarity, coupled with widespread media coverage, led many, me included, to anticipate an eventful protest on the one-year anniversary of Amini’s death. However, it was quieter than one would have imagined.
Does this apparent quietness signify a failure of the movement, or a weakening of Iranian women’s resolve to resist? Drawing on firsthand observations, my response leans towards a “No”. I am an Iranian woman in diaspora who lived through dress-code regulations imposed by the Iranian government. I also witnessed daily life both during the Women, Life, Freedom uprising’s active phase and on the first anniversary of Amini’s death. Moreover, my ongoing research explores the governance of sexuality in contemporary Iran, contributing to my contextual understanding. These factors position me to address and engage with the question posed. As I said, my short answer to the question is no. My longer answer unfolds below.
As mentioned earlier, I was in Tehran when the protests in response to Amini’s death began. Participating in protests was not the only way women responded, they demonstrated their solidarity through alternative means, such as uncovering their hair and navigating daily life without traditional coverings. The prevalence of women without hijabs increased notably on the days when there was a call for protest. Although I left Tehran a few months into the uprising, upon my return several months later, I observed a substantial rise in the number of women confidently navigating the streets without hijabs. I understand this as a continuation of the Women, Life, Freedom movement.
The Iranian authorities have proposed and discussed new measures to enforce the compulsory wearing of the hijab. Rather than physical punishment, alternative measures include preventing those women who do not conform from accessing certain services, such as internet connectivity or employment opportunities. A member of Iran’s parliament, citing the interior minister, stated that if violators persist in breaking the hijab rules after receiving a warning via text message, they would be denied public services, potentially affecting access to banks, government offices, schools, and university campuses. In April 2023, Iran’s Education Ministry declared that schooling would be withheld from those who break hijab rules. Technologies like surveillance cameras are said to be deployed in public spaces to monitor individuals and identify women not adhering to hijab regulations.
The Iranian government has implemented some of these plans: for instance, numerous car owners received text notifications about fines for not wearing the hijab while driving. The question that arises is to what extent can the government use these new measures to successfully compel women to abide by the hijab rules. Below, I try to delve into specific observations that might provide the reader with a better perspective.
My observations of street life reveal a significant increase in the number of women navigating public spaces without veils. While the morality police have not utilized the same violent measures as in the past, and there have been no widespread arrests of unveiled women, officers, typically one female and at least two to three males, stationed at the entrances of subway stations, continue monitoring and instructing unveiled women to “correct” their hijab. In all instances observed, no woman obeyed these commands, and there were even occasions when elderly individuals expressed admiration for the acts of disobedience of younger women.
The proposed punishment of denying women’s access to services like banks for persistently appearing in public without a hijab was one of the new enforcement measures. However, I witnessed an incident where a woman entered a bank without wearing a hijab was treated respectfully by the staff, receiving the service she needed. While this is a single example, and I do not mean to overgeneralize it, my observations at various organizations and institutions have led me to conclude that what I term “ordinary staff members” generally do not discriminate against women without hijabs. On the contrary, my experiences during data collection at an important organization in Iran indicated that such staff members exhibit sympathy or at least tolerance toward women who contravene hijab regulations.
The persistence of women breaking hijab laws extends beyond Tehran. During my stay, I had the opportunity to travel to two other cities, namely Kerman and Shiraz, the former recognized for its comparatively religious or conservative nature. In these two cities, there was a lighter presence of officers on the streets. In Kerman, although there were fewer unveiled women on the streets, there seemed to be significant tolerance towards them. In Shiraz, the number of unveiled women engaging in daily life was considerably high.
In conclusion, while the state continues to monitor women and employ measures against hijab rule breakers, it is highly unlikely that it will achieve its goals. The state appears to lack the necessary capacity, including technologies and more importantly support from the majority of the people, to succeed. Moreover, the occupation of public spaces by women engaging in acts of “civil disobedience,” putting their bodies at risk, appears to be capable of contesting the state’s capacity to control women’s bodies. This insight may provide valuable guidance for determining effective forms of activism and resistance for Iranian women and offers hopeful prospects for their activism in the future.